Firstly, good heavens the excitement of posting a John Dickson Carr review without then tagging it OOP — Polygon Books have Hag’s Nook (1933), The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), and She Died a Lady (1943) in their stable, and the British Library and Otto Penzler have added more, with more to come. And after last week’s brilliant and baffling no-footprints murder in a lonely corner of England, and with my broadly chronological reading of Carr’s work bringing She Died a Lady back into my orbit, the stars seemed to be aligning on a reassessment of this, probably the most consistent contender for Best Carr Novel of All Time.
In my memory, I first read this in a post-Constant Suicides daze, around which time I’d also consumed Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942) and so was in raptures at how seemingly cut-and-dried events could, with a simple flourish, suddenly be painted in all the Elysian hues of the finest ingenuity. And so when Rita Wainwright and Barry Sullivan left footprints in the mud all the way to the Lovers’ Leap at the rear of the property the comely Rita shared with her older husband Alec…and when those footprints did not return but instead took them right over the edge into the 70 foot drop down a near-vertical cliff face and into the waves below, well, none could be more cut-and-dried. So for those bodies to turn up not merely dashed on the rocks and drowned but also shot at close enough range to leaved powder burns on the corpses…frankly, sensation.
With, er, several years and a goodly few more impossible crime novels under my belt, it’s a delight to be able to say that most of this still stands up. The 1940s had already seen Carr produce masterpieces like Constant Suicides and The Seat of the Scornful (1941), and Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and He Who Whispers (1946) waited in the wings — and those are just the accepted classics from a six year stretch of Carr at his peak. There is a thoroughly earned, blithe, easy confidence to Carr’s writing here that’s enriched by the sepulchral threat of World War Two in both reality and fiction, with madness and death apt to explode around author, readers, and characters all lending an undeniably germane air to proceedings:
I am writing this in the middle of November, with a black wind flapping at the windows, and black death on the land. In September the bombers came to London. Only a few nights ago, first with Coventry and then Birmingham, they began their attack on our provincial cities. Bristol or Plymouth, they say, will be next.
Uncommonly for Carr, this is narrated not by a Bright Young Thing with romance soon to be foisted on their horizon — the Inevitable GAD Love Story happens very much off-page — but by elderly (which, from this era, means 65 years old) local GP Dr. Luke Croxley, lending a more reasoned and mature air to speculation where the like of The Unicorn Murders (1935) relied equally heavily on the impetuousness of youth. His inability to be swayed by the fulsome charms of Molly Grange, or of any other attractive young woman to feature in proceedings, leads to him reflecting blankly on much of what he sees and hears, and we are party to it along with him and will no doubt overlook the salient points just as comprehensively. And, every so often, he’s able to chill you just a little bit into the bargain…
What does a murderer look like, when he comes up silently behind his victim?